Tom Klein’s recent posting here of Alaska (1930, Universal), one of the “Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit” cartoons done by Walter Lantz and Bill Nolan, has opened up a good can o’worms.
The cartoon’s score features such public-domain favorites as “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me” and “Pop! Goes The Weasel”. But it also features another song whose provenance has yet to be completely figured out.
According to various websites, the song is known as “Go Get The Ax”, after a repeated motif found in almost every chorus that has been collected.
This song is best known to cartoon fans from its use in I. Freleng’s Hare Trigger (1945), the earliest appearance of Yosemite Sam in a Bugs Bunny short. Bugs is singing this song, to the accompaniment of his own banjo, while riding in the mail car of a train in the Old West. Buts gets through a stanza and a half of these non-sequiturs before he is interrupted from outside by what turn out to be some of his “poor relatives always out for a touch!”.
In Alaska, a sourdough (otherwise unidentified) sings three stanzas of this piece before he is silenced by a bartender. His text differs a little form the usual texts found on various sites through Google-search, in that he transposes a couple of things in the second chorus (“Go get the flea, there’s an ax in Lizzie’s ear!”), and he includes a line “Sitting on a buzzsaw/a hand-embroidered buzzsaw”) not found in any other text.
Some of the sites that include the lyrics–go Google “Go Get The Ax”, and you’ll find them yourself–indicate that this is a “campfire song”, without getting more specific than that. However, I have my own theory as to the origins of this number.
That theory revolves around another motif, that is used to end every stanza.
“A Boy’s Best Friend Is His Mother” is one of those aphorisms that can be found in sentimental/moralistic songs of the period between the War Between the States and the First World War. The song was apparently introduced by Joseph E. Howard, a tireless singer and even more tireless self-promoter who associated with a number of hit songs of the 1890’s and 1900’s. (These include “Hallo, Ma Baby” (later used in One Froggy Evening) and “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now”.).
Howard is not known to have recorded the song himself–and he recorded at intervals in a career that stretched into the 1960’s. But there were recordings made as early as 1909 by the English tenor Ernest Pike. This song was also revived by Vernon Dalhart, who was the first superstar of country music–and who recorded it for everybody that would have him–and everybody would!
The melody for “Go Get The Ax” had already been established by the time it was used in Alaska. Curiously, it would be adapted into another song with a cartoon connection: “I Like Mountain Music” (which became the title of one of the first of the “magazine-coves-come-to-life” cartoons from Warner Bros.).
It is possible that the origins of “Go Get The Ax” may well be lost in the mists of time. It could be that it originated as “special material” for some singer in vaudeville–that presentation of live entertainment that was so popular between 1900 and 1935.
The melody was set by 1930, and by then it had the status of a traditional folk song.